The University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon racism incident occurred on March 7, 2015, when University of Oklahoma (OU) Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) members were filmed performing a racially insensitive song that used the word "nigger", referenced lynching, and implied that black students would never be admitted to the fraternity.

After a video of the incident was published the SAE chapter was closed and two of its members expelled. Alumni of the local chapter have suggested they might take legal action against the university.

Incidents recorded on video

On March 7, 2015, videos were recorded while fraternity members and their dates were riding on a chartered bus to an event celebrating the national organization's Founder's Day. In the video the students are heard singing a chant to the tune of "If You're Happy and You Know It". The chant begins with the refrain, "There will never be a nigger at SΑΕ", which is followed by the lyrics, "You can hang him from a tree, but he'll never sign with me", followed again by the refrain.[2][3]

The video of the incident was reported on by The Oklahoma Daily on Sunday March 8, and additionally posted online by student group OU Unheard.[4]

An additional video emerged showing the fraternity's house mother, Beauton Gilbow, using a racial slur while singing along to a rap song at the fraternity in 2013.[5] Gilbow later stated that she was singing along at the time to rapper Trinidad James' song "All Gold Everything", which heavily uses the same racial pejorative, and apologised for any offense.[6]

Aftermath

SAE chapter suspended

On March 8, 2015, the national office of Sigma Alpha Epsilon closed the OU Chapter house, and OU officials gave SAE members until the end of March 10, 2015 to move out.[7][8]

On March 10, OU Facilities Management removed the fraternity's Greek letters from the house. They later put a padlock on the facility's gate, blocked off the car park with barriers and caution tape and changed the locks.[9]

At a March 18 press conference, the national SAE office apologised and vowed to promote diversity. [10] The fraternity strongly denied that members had been taught the song, and stated they were investigating additional racist incidents.[11] Elsewhere, the University of Texas said it was looking into claims the chant was used by SAE members there. [12]

Students expelled

University of Oklahoma president David Boren expelled two students who he said "played a leadership role" in creating "a hostile learning environment for others."[13][8] The action taken by the university was based on school's Student Rights & Responsibilities Code.[14][15] In a letter to the students, Boren stated "As president of the University of Oklahoma acting in my official capacity, I have determined that you should be expelled from this university effective immediately," and "You will be expelled because of your leadership role in leading a racist and exclusionary chant which has created a hostile educational environment for others."[16]

The LA Times reported that Boren appeared to be alluding to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which bans racial discrimination at universities receiving federal money.[16] Notwithstanding the expulsions might have been a violation of the students' first amendment rights.[16] First Amendment law specialist and UCLA Law professor Eugene Volokh asserted that President Boren's actions were unconstitutional.[17] Oklahoma State University media law associate professor Joey Senat stated that the chant was offensive but is still protected free speech.[18] Glenn Reynolds, a Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee, expressed the opinion that as a former U.S. senator, Boren should have known that the university was breaking the law in expelling the two students.[19] A Washington Post article reported that a Sigma Chi Fraternity successfully challenged similar action taken against them by George Mason University in 1992.[20]

On March 13, alumni on the board of OU's SAE chapter hired civil rights attorney Stephen Jones to look into the legal issues involving the chapter’s suspension and eviction of members from its fraternity house at OU campus.[21] The national office of SAE stated that it wasn't involved in retaining Mr. Jones and was unaware of his intentions, and that board officials with the OU local chapter had stopped communicating with them after the chapter was closed on March 9.[3][3]

On March 25, one of the students, Parker Rice, expelled for his involvement in the chant apologised publicly for his actions.[3]

Reactions

In response to the video the Oklahoma Sooners college football team held arm-in-arm protest vigils instead of attending practice.[3]

Several news media reports highlighted the fact that SAE, which was founded before the American Civil War in the antebellum south, had a history of discriminatory incidents.[3][3][3]

Robby Soave of the Reason Foundation wrote that the OU had failed to expel a freshman football player "caught on tape punching a female student in the face" in 2014. He concluded, "if anybody was going to be railroaded off campus without so much as a hearing, you would think it might be perpetrators of actual violence, rather than perpetrators of offensive speech (which isn't actually a category of crime)."[29]

Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough of Morning Joe television show blamed the fraternity brothers' use of the word on hip hop music.[30][4]

Actor and Delta Tau Delta alum Will Ferrell said the incident might be an argument to end the entire college fraternity system. "The incident in Oklahoma, that's a real argument for getting rid of the system altogether, in my opinion, even having been through a fraternity," he told the New York Times.[4]

Beginning in 2015, first year students and faculty have been required to take a five-hour course on diversity. Although several news outlets have connected the training to the chanting video, the course was announced in January, prior to the incident, in connexion with a rumours of a "Cowboy and Indians" theme party being planned by a different fraternity.[4][4][4]